European Space Agency astronauts train in terrestrial lava tubes. Credit: ESA/L. Ricci

The first systematic comparison of lava tube candidates on the Earth, Moon and Mars has been completed. What’s the upshot for underground caves?

Lava tubes, underground caves created by volcanic activity, could provide protected habitats large enough to house streets on Mars or even towns on the Moon.

New research on lava tubes has been presented at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2017 in Riga. The work is already being used in the European Space Agency’s astronaut training program.

Tunnel sizes

According to Riccardo Pozzobon in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Padova in Italy: “The comparison of terrestrial, lunar and martian examples shows that, as you might expect, gravity has a big effect on the size of lava tubes.”

Cave diving on Earth is spurring increased interest in use of lava tubes on the Moon and Mars.
Credit: ESA/S. Sechi

On Earth, Pozzobon says, lava tubes can be nearly 100 feet (thirty meters) across. In the lower gravity environment of Mars, there is evidence for lava tubes that are 820 feet (250 meters) in width. “On the Moon, these tunnels could be a kilometer or more across and many hundreds of kilometers in length.”

“These results have important implications for habitability and human exploration of the Moon but also for the search of extraterrestrial life on Mars,” Pozzobon adds. “Lava tubes are environments shielded from cosmic radiation and protected from micrometeorites flux, potentially providing safe habitats for future human missions. They are also, potentially, large enough for quite significant human settlements.”

Artist’s impression of the radar instrument to probe for lava tubes beneath the lunar surface.
Credit: NASA/U. Trento


Lunar radar system

In a separate talk at EPSC, Leonardo Carrer and colleagues of the University of Trento in Italy presented a concept for a radar system specifically designed to detect lava tubes on the Moon from orbit.

A mission carrying this instrument “would enable a crucial step towards finding safe habitats on the Moon for human colonization,” Carrer reports.


Go to this video detailing the European Space Agency’s Pangaea 2016 cave work:



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